LINCOLN, Neb. — Not once, not even for a second, did anyone on his team lose faith in Tommy Armstrong.
Not when he writhed in pain on his back near the 30-yard line in the third quarter. Not when he sat on the bench with an IV in his veins to fight cramps. Not when he was in the shotgun on 4th-and-9 trailing No. 22 Oregon late in the fourth quarter. Not once did his teammates believe Armstrong wasn’t going to bring back Nebraska from the brink.
Coach Mike Riley sure didn’t. He’s always believed in Armstrong. It’s never crossed his mind not to.
“I would never say we had that feeling at all,” Riley said after Nebraska’s 35-32 win over No. 22 Oregon.
Senior safety Nate Gerry didn’t question his teammate. He said he respects the “hell” out of Armstrong. The quarterback is one of the toughest guys Gerry knows.
“I have never seen him get knocked down and not get back up,” Gerry said.
And Jordan Westerkamp? Forget it. He’s never questioned Armstrong for any reason.
“Tommy played out of his mind,” Westerkamp said of his roommate’s game. “He is such a competitor.”
On the same day Armstrong passed Taylor Martinez to become the school’s all-time leader in passing yards, Armstrong showed why he’s earned that trust despite occasional mishaps.
The senior completed 17 of 33 passes for 200 yards and three touchdowns. He also led the team in rushing with 95 yards on 16 carries, including a 34-yard, game-winning touchdown with just over two minutes remaining in the game.
And on a day when Nebraska needed a win, in a season when the Huskers need to prove they’re not the team that lost seven games last year, Armstrong showed up.
“He made some big-time plays,” Riley said. “He played really good, clutch football.”
Armstrong’s two biggest plays came late in the fourth quarter with Nebraska trailing 32-38.
After a 3-yard loss on a run by sophomore Devine Ozigbo, a 4-yard run from Armstrong and a dropped pass by senior TE Cethan Carter, the Huskers found themselves facing 4th-and-9 near midfield with a little more than two minutes left.
It was a situation Nebraska has been in often during Armstrong’s tenure in Lincoln: down late with a game-defining play falling into Armstrong’s hands. And in those games, for whatever reason, Nebraska couldn’t get it done.
“As many know, we’ve had too many of these (games) that went the wrong way,” Riley said.
Armstrong’s late interception against Michigan State in 2014. Nebraska’s inability to close out Minnesota that same year. The overtime interception against Miami a year ago. The end of the Illinois or Wisconsin or Northwestern games last season.
So yeah, everyone had reason to be wary of the outcome of this 4th-and-9.
Yet, no one did. They trusted that Armstrong would succeed on this fourth down. They even knew where the ball was going, to Westerkamp for 14 yards and a first down.
“You know Tommy, he’s the biggest competitor out there on the field and he made a great throw right in there,” Westerkamp said, adding he was certain the ball was coming to him.
On the next play, Armstrong bolted up the middle on a designed run, stiff-arming a cornerback, outrunning a safety and barreling into the end zone.
“My legs felt like Jello,” Armstrong said, stretching his legs behind the podium while fielding questions. “Legs hurt but they feel better when you’re in the end zone.”
After the touchdown, Nebraska’s defense shut down Oregon. Armstrong watched from the sidelines with the receivers and a few linemen.
He told them not to get comfortable. He’s been in these games before and they’ve had to go in again when they thought they didn’t. But the Blackshirts sacked Oregon QB Dakota Prukop on 4th-and-18 to seal the win.
Armstrong didn’t play perfectly. He had a fumble that led to an 50-yard Oregon touchdown run. He tried to force a few throws that could have turned into interceptions.
But in a game like the one on Saturday against Oregon, with changes in momentum and score and emotions, what’s important, Riley said, is the play of the quarterback.
“The quarterback is at the center of a lot of that, and of course (Armstrong) made plays throwing the ball, running, and making some good reads handing the ball off,” Riley said. “He played a heck of a football game, and a lot of times players end up being defined by those moments where you have to drive a team down and win the game. It’s a really good sign.”
Nebraska will likely be ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 in a few days and will enter Big Ten play the favorite to win the Big Ten West after Iowa’s loss to North Dakota State on Saturday. With a soft schedule, the Huskers have a chance to enter the Wisconsin game in October 7-0, something they haven’t done in years.
This particular team, Riley said, has warts, and still has a lot of work.
“But boy I love our fight,” he said.
Westerkamp said that fight comes from Armstrong. From knowing that their quarterback, even if he’s cramping on the sideline, or hooked up to an IV, or in the shotgun at 4th-and-9, won’t quit.
“It’s awesome to have him out there and be our quarterback,” Westerkamp said.